The Celtics met for a voluntary team dinner Thursday night in Greensboro, N.C., and the informal gathering grew into enjoyable conversations and team bonding.
The chemistry of the defending Eastern Conference champions is something Blake Griffin noticed the moment he walked into the building, signed to provide veteran leadership, a big body in the paint, and another voice of reason.
Griffin, who made his preseason debut Friday, can’t stop raving about the team’s closeness, which may be an unveiled shot at two of his previous stops: Los Angeles and Brooklyn. Griffin witnessed all the chaos the past two seasons with the Nets, the infighting, the refusal of Kyrie Irving to get vaccinated, the disdain for coach Steve Nash.
Boston may not be paradise, but the drama is considerably less. The franchise has moved on smoother than expected from the Ime Udoka controversy. Griffin signed after Udoka was suspended, so he has little reference to the team last season and is refreshed by his new environment.
“It’s been great. Everybody from the top to bottom in this organization is great,” Griffin said. “There’s a reason why they have been so successful over the years. Just how everything is run from my short time here. I noticed that.”
The staggering blow from Udoka’s abrupt departure and the circumstances surrounding his actions were felt for several days, but they are quickly gaining comfort and adjusting to interim coach Joe Mazzulla. And the stakes are high. The Celtics are picked by some prognosticators to win the East and the league is not going to provide any grace period for losing a coach.
“These guys have been here for a long time and they’re been through a lot together, good and bad,” Mazzulla said. “I told them that’s something I’m relying on is their experience and what they’re gone through together to help us. Not surprised at all. We have great players and great people who want to win and it makes the environment very fun.”
Fun and competitive. The Celtics have been going hard in practice, intending to avoid the slow start that plagued their first 40 games last season while realizing they will be the hunted.
Griffin admires the approach.
“The intensity in those [preseason] games and in practice and shootaround has been something I haven’t seen in a while, probably since my Clipper days when we were really making a run for it,” he said. “The maturity of this team, and some of us sat down in the meal room for probably 2½ hours and just talked and more and more people came and it was a group of like 10 of us.
“That’s something you don’t really see a lot, as well, on teams that I’ve been on. From those aspects this team is very ready. We still have work to do like everybody else, but I’ve been impressed by where they’re at as a team.”
One particular Celtic delighted by Griffin’s presence is Al Horford, who now has another 30-something to bond with. The closeness is apparent. Mazzulla has been a natural replacement for Udoka, running practices with precision and seriousness while respecting the players’ ability to police themselves.
“I think [the chemistry comes] from last year,” Horford said. “I felt like once we kind of gelled together midway through last year, it carried over and when we got back this season, it’s buddies, like you’re back to school, everybody’s back hanging out together. The new guys are coming in and we’re welcoming them with open arms. [Griffin’s] a great guy to have around. He has a lot of perspective about the game and it’s just been nice to have him around. He’s a vet that gets it. He wants to be part of winning. He wants to do big things and he’s fit right in quickly. He’s one of us already. All of us look to take this journey together.”
Said Griffin: “When you’ve done it for 13, 14 years it gets a little easier every time to kind of know how it’s supposed to go and pick up personalities. These guys are all great.”
Griffin spent years in Los Angeles chasing titles but also drowning in chaos. Those Clippers teams were talented with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Redick, and Jamal Crawford. But they never reached the conference finals, and the bickering and internal issues splintered the team.
“I always say this, but I think people really blew the Clippers team (issues) out of proportion,” Griffin said. “It was nothing nearly as bad as the worst. But this [Celtics] team is definitely special in that area. You have some really young teams that get along really well but they’re not good teams. When you have really good players, [Jayson Tatum], [Jaylen Brown], Marcus [Smart], and Al have played together for a long time and genuinely like each other and pull for each other, then it’s special.”